The value of hiring an industry outsider as a content manager
By John Becker
Each day on my drive to work, I listen to an IMPACT podcast. (I have recommendations, by the way, if you’re interested).
It’s a peaceful time for me: full of the murmur of road noise, minimal traffic (Hallelujah!), and my podcast of the day.
My goal is to soak up as much information as I can during a time that would otherwise be unproductive. It attunes me to the work that awaits and preps my mind for the moment I step into an office — and an entire industry — that was totally unfamiliar just two months ago.
The other day, I was driving along to Kathleen Booth’s fantastic interview with Oli Billson on the Inbound Success Podcast.
After her guest shared some insights into his formative years, which included starting a business as a teen and some other twists and turns, Kathleen came back with this:
“There's an interesting pattern I've noticed. I've now [done] 90-some-odd episodes [of] this podcast, and I interview different people every week, and they're all people who are getting phenomenal results with some kind of marketing. And what I've started to notice is that a lot of them, probably the majority of them, are not trained as marketers.”
This caught my ear as I, too, am a non-marketer marketer. A novice. A newbie. And I am far from alone. Many marketers, and especially content writers, have come in from other fields.
Kathleen herself began her career working in international development, boasting smooth Spanish and a heavily-stamped passport as mementos from her years abroad.
My own background is in education, writing, and tutoring — both in the US and overseas.
I taught English, developed curriculum, and tutored and wrote professionally, but I also spent time building furniture, doing field biology research, and starting my own business.
As I went through the hiring process at IMPACT, I was upfront at every turn about my industry inexperience.
The thing was, not only were my future employers okay with my background — they celebrated it.
The skills in demand, I found, were skills I had in abundance.
I am comfortable coaching people through the writing process and am a focused editor. I can write quickly and accurately, am an experienced interviewer, and am naturally curious.
While I can’t sound like an expert, I can ask questions.
And while I sometimes feel like I’m drowning in acronyms, trying to keep my KPIs and my CRMs straight, I am slowly becoming more and more comfortable.
(Trust me, I know the difference now, but at the beginning I felt like I was treading milk in a bowl of alphabet cereal).
A great deal of this I owe to asking questions.
At IMPACT, we go through a workshop called “World-Class Communication” that was developed by Marcus Sheridan, a company partner.
One of the central tenets is the concept of “Vanguarding,” which, in essence, means acknowledging any potential issues, concerns, or pitfalls before you begin a conversation.
In the training, this is presented as a gesture of goodwill, honesty, humility, and openness.
It makes sense, I think, to approach a meaningful discussion this way.
It allows you to manage the conversation around a particular sticky topic and to make sure everything is out in the open, creating a natural starting point.
In many digital marketing cases, this might inform a conversation with a client or colleague by serving as a disarming opener.
For me, in these first months at IMPACT, vanguarding has been my go-to tactic when it comes to setting expectations.
I tend to begin conversations by addressing the elephant in the room: I’m new here — AND I’m new to marketing. I might need to stop you for clarification.
And, this might be a dumb question, but why…
The Power of Asking Why
As I went through my onboarding process at IMPACT, I felt compelled to continually ask “Why?”
I believe that one three-letter question can be instrumental in opening lines of communication and starting dialogue. However, it must come from a place of genuine curiosity and humility.
I wasn’t challenging anyone. Everything was new to me, and I was eager to learn all I could.
If I encountered something that didn’t make sense, I would ask about it.
Often, this yielded a thoughtful and well-informed response that described the intention behind a certain process or structure.
At other times, though, the same question yielded an answer akin to “Well, we’ve been meaning to change this and we haven’t gotten to it yet” or, even, “I don’t know why. Can you help us think of a better way?”
The role of the outsider can be just that — one who can point out potential opportunities or incongruities that might be invisible to others. Someone to whom everything appears novel is a sort of ad-hoc consultant, simply by position.
One of my first official assignments at IMPACT was to interview a senior-level web developer. Someone with such an impressive skill base could veer toward producing an esoteric narrative.
As a novice, I, once again, continually asked clarifying questions that sometimes led down tangential paths, sometimes led to richer, fuller discussion.
My extremely patient subject obliged me — and my stance helped yield a final piece that, as intended, was accessible to a general audience.
The Wisdom (& Advantage) of the Novice
Now first off, I want to be clear: I am not using this header to suggest that I am wise as a novice.
Far from it.
Instead, I want to suggest that a novice can generate wisdom simply based on his or her position.
Being oriented outside of a typical field offers a vantage point inaccessible to those from within.
This is not a wisdom that comes from experience — it is a wisdom that comes from inexperience.
In the Shakespearean playbook, it is the fool who is often responsible for the most elevated and insightful speeches in the play; not because he delivers the lines himself, but because he prompts them from the more intelligent characters.
Same thing here.
When Liz Murphy invited me as a guest on her podcast last week, I was equal parts nervous and flattered. I felt uncomfortable being foisted as an expert, until I heard our topic: “How to Interview Subject Matter Experts.”
I didn’t need to be an expert. I only had to talk about how to get experts to talk about their expertise.
I can’t say that I offered any kind of itemized list for interviewers to try. There are a few tips and tricks, to be sure, but I primarily sought to offer a pithy piece of advice:
Don’t be stymied by your own ignorance. Acknowledge it — and then use it as a tool.
For the New Content Manager
For those of you entering a content manager role without a marketing background, I encourage you to believe that your ignorance is an asset.
You would not be where you are if your employers didn’t see the value in your background. If you’re a newfound content manager or find yourself in another editorial role like mine, they likely value your ability to write — and your ability to ask questions.
You will learn marketing.
I know I can only boast a basic familiarity with something my colleagues have studied in depth, and I never pretend to know more than I do, but I learn each day. You will too.
In a scene from HBO’s mini-series Chernobyl, a career politician asks an expert scientist how a nuclear reactor works. Sort of a “can you explain this super complicated thing in 30 seconds?” type question.
To the scientist’s credit, he does. To the politician’s credit, he listens, knowing he has a framework with which to scaffold future knowledge, and that he now has a place to start.
With a few months behind me now, I’m getting my feet under me a bit more every day.
In a true meta-moment, I listened to Liz Murphy’s Content Lab on my Monday commute.
This time, the voice on the other side was my own. And you know what? For a few moments — here and there — I actually sound like I know what I’m talking about.
Wondering where to begin?